Both contemporaries and later historians have held starkly different opinions about Cromwell. For many, he was an arch-hypocrite, an ambitious tyrant who ruthlessly used and destroyed individuals and institutions in pursuit of personal power and glory. Others have seen him as a tolerant and enlightened figure, who genuinely believed he was doing God's will and who, in the 1650s, sincerely sought to create a country which was stronger, fairer and purer than the pre-war state. Both because of these starkly different views of Cromwell and because it is often difficult to distinguish between his personal achievements and the broader consequences of civil war and republican rule, it is not easy to summarise Cromwell's legacy. Clearly, he towered over the mid seventeenth century. As the most consistently successful military leader, he contributed massively not only to the parliamentary victory in England and Wales but also to the establishment of English control over Scotland and Ireland. As an accomplished political leader and statesman and perhaps the only man with sufficient military and political standing to hold the republic together, he ran a strong, fairly stable civilian regime.

Cromwell with London in the background
Cromwell with London in the background
The old St Paul's Cathedral, destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 can be clearly seen in the background.
It is a measure of his importance that the parliamentary caused swiftly fragmented after his death and that just eighteen months after his state funeral, monarchy and the house of Stuart were restored. Directly or indirectly, he laid the foundations for several trends which re-emerged later in the seventeenth century - a constitutional system in which the head of state had limited power and parliament played a much expanded role; a larger degree of plurality and freedom in religion, with toleration for Protestants outside the Church of England; the creation of a more united British state, embracing Ireland and Scotland but dominated by England; and a much stronger, interventionist foreign policy, which brought England prestige and territory overseas. But perhaps Cromwell's true greatness lies, not in his legacy, but in the decency of the man and his regime. He never lost his sense of humanity and compassion, he sought to compromise and reconcile wherever possible, and he retained a desire to reform and improve society. Unlike so many revolutionary leaders before and since, he never became a corrupt, power-drunk, blood-thirsty megalomaniac, running a regime of terror, and instead he began the process of healing the wounds of the civil war which he had done so much to win. England was thus spared the bloody purges and mass executions which have accompanied so many other revolutions around the world.

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